Lead testing underway for Haida Gwaii Schools

Angus Wilson, superintendent for the Haida Gwaii school district, said that results will be posted once they come back from the lab.


Drinking water at four Haida Gwaii schools is being tested after high lead levels were found at older schools in Prince Rupert.

Angus Wilson, superintendent for the Haida Gwaii school district, said last Friday that results will be posted once they come back from the lab.

As a precaution, staff at Tahayghen, George M. Dawson, Port Clements and Agnes L. Mathers are regularly flushing the pipes, and everyone at the schools has been asked to run any drinking water until it’s cold.

Three of the four schools were built before 1989, the year B.C. banned lead pipes, fixtures, and solder from any plumbing used for drinking water.

Port Clements Elementary is a newer school, built in 2008, but its gym predates the change.

North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice says she is glad to hear the Haida Gwaii school district is acting quickly.

“Even a little bit of lead is not good for anybody, and it’s particularly bad for young children,” said Rice, the NDP critic for northern and rural health.

As Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s public health officer, has said, the problem is not acute — no one at the Prince Rupert schools has shown any signs of lead poisoning.

But lead is toxic to the nervous system and, even in small doses, long-term exposure can cause harm.

Children are especially vulnerable. Children’s exposure to lead is associated with lower IQ scores, attention-deficit disorders, and anti-social behaviour.

Given the extra risk for children, Rice is calling for B.C. to adopt routine testing for lead in school drinking water, as Ontario already does.

Rice is frustrated that the issue isn’t taken more seriously, particularly on the north coast and Haida Gwaii, where the freshwater tends to be naturally acidic, meaning it is more likely to leach metals out of lead and copper plumbing.

“People knew there was an issue in the northwest for a long time, and no one did anything,” she said.

In fact, what triggered a public health official to do a recent test for lead in Prince Rupert schools was a similar Kitimat incident that dates back to 2012.

When a teacher in Kitimat noticed that the salmon eggs in her class aquarium kept dying, she asked a parent who works for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to test the water coming out of the classroom sink.

Tests showed lead and copper levels above Canada’s drinking-water guidelines.

After alerting the Northern Health Authority, public health officers did further tests and found metal leaching throughout that school and several others in town.

The amount of lead in the water varied from school to school, and also among different outlets.

All the school drinking fountains were covered up while the testing was done, and the schools switched to bottled water.

According to a 2014 report published in Environmental Health Review, testing showed the water was fine before it reached the schools.

The trouble is that drinking water sat in the schools’ old pipes overnight or for long periods during the day.

Without running the water first, anyone taking a first drink would be at higher risk of exposure.

At some taps, it took a full 10 minutes of flushing to bring the levels down.

The study authors urge the B.C. government to adopt routine testing and, given the daily time and effort that flushing the pipes requires, they recommend other long-term solutions.

Besides replacing plumbing materials, schools could install lead filters on faucets and fountains — Rice said four Prince Rupert schools are doing that now.

Another option is to have municipalities lower the acidity of the source water.

Whatever the answer, Rice is hoping the issue will not fall off the radar again.

“There’s a lot of this, ‘Well, who’s going to pay for this problem?” she said.

In Prince Rupert, many residents are buying $30 test kits to check the lead levels of their water at home.

Rice found the levels were high in her own home, but the cost of tearing her old plumbing out was so high she installed a lead filter instead.

“There are so many people here that are living in old, war-time homes that do not have the means to change out their pipes,” she said.

Even the B.C. legislature has a lead-in-the-water problem, she said, as MLA Vicki Huntington found out after ordering a test last week.

“It just goes to show that this is probably a much broader issue, but we don’t know if we don’t test,” she said, noting again that children are at the highest risk.

“When I ask why aren’t we testing the daycares or the mom-and-tot groups, you know, I just get a pause on the phone.”